An Environmental Service Corps for America

Just as President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal led America out of the Great Depression in our grandparent’s day, a dramatic set of initiatives will be required if we are to prevent the Great Warming. Many have argued for something akin to the Apollo Project to carry out the research and development needed to advance low-cost renewable energy that can replace fossil fuels. I agree that such a program is crucial—and I’m optimistic that if we put American ingenuity to the task, we can make tremendous headway in a transition to sustainability.

But we need to go further. We need to weatherize and insulate the nation’s existing houses. We need to restore the wetland ecosystems that protect our coastal areas from storm surges. And we need to respond effectively to such challenges as invasive species and the rapid migration of ecosystems. To do this not only requires the right materials and know-how, it also requires labor—and a lot of it. We need a new workforce to carry out such a monumental effort.

I therefore propose the creation of an Environmental Service Corps. This would look like a cross between the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s and the Peace Corps that President Kennedy launched in 1961. The Environmental Service Corps would ask men and women to invest two years of their lives in the service of their country, especially after high school or college—by carrying out a wide range of projects to help our nation reduce the likelihood of catastrophic climate change while at the same time adapting to changes brought about by a warming climate.

Activities of the Environmental Service Corps could include the following:

A Rebuilding America program to weatherize and insulate America’s housing stock. While the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program has been insulating homes for 30 years, it does not go far enough with these energy retrofits and it does not serve enough homeowners. We need to dramatically upgrade the energy performance of our 120 million existing housing units. For lower-income Americans, the Environmental Service Corps would provide a pool of labor that could be managed by paid team leaders trained in building science and construction. In colder climates, such retrofits would involve boosting wall insulation levels to R-30 or higher, replacing windows, and addressing moisture and durability problems (see The Challenge of Existing Homes: Retrofitting for Dramatic Energy Savings).

Ecological restoration. Restoring natural ecosystems is critically important, particularly in coastal regions where wetlands and coastal forests are needed to protect against flooding and storm surges that will become increasingly common with global warming. Ecological restoration teams from the Environmental Service Corps would carry out these plantings and coastal restoration efforts.

Reforestation with species adapted to more southern climates. Climate scientists predict that global climate change will result in dramatic geographic shifts in ecosystems in North America as species adapted to cooler climates become thermally stressed or die off without cold winters to kill insect pests. Some experts believe that climates will change more rapidly than ecosystems can adapt. If this is the case, humans may need to intervene through widespread reforestation programs that introduce more southern (but regionally native) species and genetic strains resistant to introduced disease organisms. The Environmental Service Corps could perform this function.

Invasive species control. One of the consequences of global commerce is the introduction of invasive species that threaten natural ecosystems. Controlling invasives is difficult and often involves significant labor—for which the Environmental Service Corps would be well-suited.

The wide-ranging programs that the Environmental Service Corps could tackle are huge, and the infrastructure of the Corps would have to be similarly scaled, potentially involving hundreds of thousands of volunteers. Its programs would be challenging to initiate and expensive to operate; indeed, such projects, especially the Rebuilding America program, could be among the most challenging our nation has ever undertaken. But these efforts are critically important if we are to succeed with the level of carbon emission reductions that climate scientists tell us are needed and if we are to protect our nation from some of the expected effects of climate change.

Obviously, the details of this plan aren’t figured out. The complexity and challenges inherent in establishing the Environmental Service Corps and implementing its programs are immense … but so would be the benefits. If we as a nation are serious—or become serious—about grappling with the challenges of climate change, the Environmental Service Corps provides a mechanism for doing so.

Published July 10, 2007

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August 6, 2007 - 8:34 pm

This is a great idea and it should be sent to every elected official and those running for office!